Perspectives from around the world

The impact of societal debates

“Local opposition to onshore windfarms has tripled, poll shows” - The Guardian.

According to The Guardian, opposition to windfarms has increased rapidly in the UK since 2010, with media reports of political discussions held up as an important influencing factor. The numbers are significant. Can politics and media indeed have such an impact on public opinion in such a short time? If so, what lessons can we learn from this for CCS? And what can project developers do in these cases?

Putting aside my critical attitude towards all kinds of polls performed by media, the article made me curious. What happened in the UK exactly? A letter from 106 conservative members of Parliament to Prime Minister Cameron in January 2012 plays a central role in the debate. They want Cameron to stop 'taxpayer subsidy' for onshore wind. The letter also expresses worries about "renewable energy targets being more important than planning considerations". The new National Planning Framework decreases possibilities for citizens to oppose windfarm proposals according to the senders. The letter initiated a debate and reactions in the national media.

But how could this letter and the following debate have had such an impact on the opinions of UK citizens? I can identify two main causes. Firstly, the debate focused on the direct costs of onshore wind for the tax payer and the democratic character of planning policies. By using these arguments (taxes and democracy) in the media, the topic immediately shifted from being relevant to only those being influenced by wind parks to all UK citizens. Secondly, the debate insinuates that one should be against or in favour of onshore wind. Like the Members of Parliament who signed the letter, you have to choose a side, you cannot be neutral. These two elements in combination with the media attention have pushed people to be more explicit in their opinion and explain the increased numbers at both ends of the scale: strongly oppose and strongly support new wind power stations.

It's interesting to see that the debate is thus not really about wind turbines! There are no arguments used related to electricity production, energy, renewable resources, fossil fuels or climate change. The turbines are less appealing to many than hot topics like taxes, democracy and new planning policies. This is strengthened by the fact that many of the Members of Parliament, who signed the letter, are not representing areas in which windparks are actually planned.

What can we learn from this for CCS? This example shows that in public debates different topics can quickly be associated with each other. This is often done on purpose to increase the relevance of the debate for a larger group of people. In the British case wind turbines, taxes, democracy, and planning policy are combined in one debate to influence the acceptance of the onshore wind energy. Hypothetically the same debate, with the same arguments could have taken place about CCS in the UK or any other country.

What can a project developer do when this happens? There are instances when a situation like this is better ignored. For instance, if the debate does not directly relate to a project, or if it is being published by a media source that you know is not supportive of you. However, as a general rule of thumb, it pays to be prepared. Projects should continuously observe the stakeholders that can influence your project. This includes national issues, but also local politicians, media, other industries, NGOs, suppliers, to name a few. By monitoring their actions, you know immediately what they say, write or do which relates to any aspects of your project. This enables you to participate at an early phase and to influence public opinion.

In the British case the effect of the debate could have been completely different if wind project developers (collectively) had reacted immediately after the letter was published. They could have explained for example the real financial, societal and environmental costs and benefits of the turbines and the participation possibilities in the decision making processes, to create a more balanced flow of information. However, joining a debate provides no guarantee of a positive outcome for your projects. But at least it increases the chances for better understanding and more fact based opinion forming.

This post expresses the views of this author and not necessarily of their organisation or the Global CCS Institute.

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Ynke Feenstra

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Ynke Feenstra is an expert in societal acceptance, strategic communication, stakeholder participation, public engagement and behavioural change. As a consultant and researcher she focusses on projects related to sustainability, energy and innovative technologies, including CCS.